Sep 3, 2021

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Afghan Refugee Resettlement Plan Speech Transcript

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Afghan Refugee Resettlement Plan Speech Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsDHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Afghan Refugee Resettlement Plan Speech Transcript

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave remarks on plans to resettle Afghan refugees in the U.S. on September 3, 2021. Read the transcript of the briefing here.

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Alejandro Mayorkas: (00:00)
Good morning. Thank you for joining us today. Before we speak about Operation Allies Welcome, I want to give you a brief update on our response to Hurricane Ida. First and foremost, our hearts break for the families and loved ones that we lost in Hurricane Ida and its aftermath from landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi to the more recent flooding in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. We offer our prayers and our support to your communities. We share in your grief, and your resolve to rebuild and recover.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (00:50)
President Biden is visiting Louisiana today, and I want to reiterate what he, our FEMA administrator, Deanne Criswell, and all of us have made clear from the start. Our federal government said we would be ready to respond to this massive and catastrophic storm, and we were. We pre-positioned personnel assets and resources on the Gulf Coast and in key areas ahead of time.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (01:17)
We had meals and water in place for anyone forced from their home. We secured generators for hospitals so they could continue to treat patients no matter what. We continue working to provide states with fuel to cover any shortages. Right now, we encourage people to stay away from flooded and damaged areas for their own safety. I make this pledge. Thanks to the extraordinary team at FEMA, and our partners in state and local government. Just as we were there before and during the storm, we will be there long after to help the impacted individuals, families, and communities in their recovery.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (02:02)
Now let me turn to Operation Allies Welcome. I am joined today by a remarkable public servant, Bob Fenton, about whom I will speak in a moment. Yesterday, I visited three sites that are part of Operation Allies Welcome. Our unprecedented historic effort to resettle in the United States tens of thousands of Afghan nationals, many of whom assisted the United States, and many of whom are vulnerable women and girls. One of the sites I visited was the Dulles Expo Center, a large care shelter where the people and their families are checked in, offered a COVID vaccine, fed, provided medical care, counseled, and sheltered before their onward movement.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (02:53)
I spoke with a relief worker who has dedicated her 20-year federal career to refugee around the world. She said that tragically wherever she has worked abroad, the refugees feel fear when they see a soldier in uniform. For the past 11 days, she has been working around the clock at the Dulles Expo Center. Each day, she makes it a point to walk around the facility alongside an American soldier in uniform. Why? Because it gives her stature. The Afghan nationals look at the soldier as their protector. It is the American soldier who has brought them to safety in America. Every single day our military personnel perform heroic work in the service of so many.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (03:44)
Operation Allies Welcome is the ongoing effort to bring Americans home, and to bring vulnerable Afghans to the United States, and support their resettlement. The president of the United States has the authority to designate a federal agency to lead a federal response. Last Friday, he designated the Department of Homeland Security as the lead federal agency to coordinate Operation Allies Welcome to help ensure unity of effort, clear roles and responsibilities, synchronized priorities, and effective coordination across the federal government.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (04:21)
This initiative requires us to call on the resources, expertise, and authorities of every part of the federal government. DHS possesses vast operational expertise and a long record of leadership bringing different agencies together to execute a single mission. We have stood up a Unified Coordination Group or UCG to coordinate our efforts across the federal government. I have designated Bob Fenton, a top leader at FEMA, to lead the UCG. Mr. Fenton will report directly to me.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (04:59)
The Unified Coordination Group will focus on a broad range of services throughout vulnerable Afghans resettlement process from initial immigration processing and COVID testing to resettlement support for individuals who are neither US citizens nor lawful permanent residents. The resettlement support will include initial processing at predesignated US military basis prior to being resettled with an into communities.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (05:28)
DHS is fundamentally a department of partnerships. We depend on close coordination with the intelligence community, law enforcement, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials, non-profit organizations, and social service groups. The team and I already have spoken with a number of governors and local officials. I have met with more than 40 community-based organizations, including Afghan-American organizations to learn of their ideas and recommendations. I have heard, and we will operationalize more robustly their recommendations, including cultural competency, access to counsel, trauma counseling, and pastoral care.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (06:16)
We will work to expedite receipt of donations from generous hearted Americans throughout our great country. The population of individuals brought to the United States includes US citizens, lawful permanent residents, special immigrant visa holders, individuals who have assisted the United States in Afghanistan, and all the other vulnerable Afghans, such as journalists, and vulnerable women and girls. First, the federal government has been focused on the screening and vetting of individuals evacuated from Afghanistan.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (06:54)
The Department of Homeland Security remains ever vigilant against attempts by foreign adversaries to exploit vulnerable populations as a means of gaining access to the US for nefarious purposes. Consequently, as part of a collaborative interagency effort that includes DHS, the Department of Defense and State, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other agencies, the federal government has established a robust screening and vetting architecture with a dual goals of protecting the homeland and providing protections for vulnerable Afghans.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (07:33)
In partnership with federal agencies, we have built the security and vetting system to operate in the transit countries abroad. DHS has deployed nearly 400 employees from CBP Office of Field Operations, the Coast Guard, TSA, and other agencies to assist in the vetting process. In addition, we, in the Department of Defense, have shipped hundreds of biometric screening machines to the transit-

Alejandro Mayorkas: (08:03)
… hundreds of biometric screening machines to the transit third countries. In those transit countries, we conduct our biometric and biographic screening. This includes checking against multiple agencies’ records. Our policy is not to board flights to the United States until they are cleared. We undertake quality control checks at every step of the travel process, including while the individuals are in route and before deplaning. Most individuals arrive at Dulles or Philadelphia Airport, where they are processed for entry and tested for COVID. For those who are not US citizens, lawful permanent residents, or do not otherwise have a support system here in the United States, the vast majority are opting to go to a military base pending resettlement efforts.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (08:55)
Thanks to the partnership with the Department of Defense, we have designated eight military bases for this purpose. Through the Unified Coordination Group, at the military bases we are providing the resources individuals need to include medical care, language access resources, immigration assistance, and other vital services. In addition to DHS and the Department of Defense, the federal agencies working on this effort include the Department of State, Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education. Our goal is to move the vulnerable Afghan nationals out of the military bases and have them resettled successfully in the community as swiftly and safely as possible. We are building the public-private partnership to achieve this objective at scale.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (09:51)
This is just the beginning of this operation, and there’s far more to come. But here’s the bottom line, in just the last few weeks, more than 120,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul. Among them are thousands of vulnerable Afghans. Many have worked on behalf of the United States. We have a moral imperative to protect them, to support those who have supported this nation. We have an obligation to do so in a way that protects our national security and preserves public safety.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (10:29)
At Fort Lee, one of the military bases designated to receive vulnerable Afghan nationals, I heard two stories yesterday that help communicate the meaning of our operation and the meaning of our country. When families arrive at Fort Lee, the children are given an American flag. As the children wave the flag, the Afghan men place their hands over their hearts out of respect, in gratitude, and in reverence. I met with a federal government employee who was working at Fort Lee to help Afghan nationals in the immigration process. The federal government employee served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. He was supported by an Afghan national who worked as his interpreter. The federal government employee has kept in touch with the interpreter for the past 10 years. Last week, he assisted the interpreter and his family with their immigration papers at Fort Lee.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (11:33)
As we move forward through this process, these individuals will be resettled across the country, just like generations of newcomers throughout our history. They will have the opportunity to enrich the fabric of our nation, and I would ask all Americans to welcome them into our communities. That must be the promise and the purpose of Operation Allies Welcome. We have a solemn duty to meet this mission, and I know together we will. With that, I will turn things over to Bob.

Bob: (12:07)
Thank you, sir. I’m honored to be leading the Unified Coordination Group, which has been working around the clock with multiple different federal agencies to establish a robust process in which agencies from across the government can come together to meet the needs of the mission at hand. We have an integrated screening and security vetting process, which includes biometric and biographic screening. This is conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, counter-terrorism professionals from not only the Department of Homeland Security and CBP, but also the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, and additional intelligence partners.

Bob: (13:01)
We are ensuring that we have adequate resources in place to provide the health and screening as individuals come into the airports, to test for COVID-19 and other vaccinations to everyone who arrives in the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome. We continue to take every precaution to stop the spread of COVID-19, and with the help of CBP and USCIS, we are coordinating for personnel to be available at every step of the immigration process to assist as appropriate. USCIS has deployed personnel to adjudicate applications for employment, authorization, and other immigrated related processes. It is our responsibility to work with the Department of Defense to provide the safety and well-being of those who have transitioned into the different military facilities that have become operational across the United States.

Bob: (14:02)
Thus far, we have eight facilities that are safe havens that we’re using, Fort Bliss, Fort Lee, Fort McCoy, Fort Pickett, Joint Base McGuire Dix-Lakehurst, Camp Atterbury, Marine Corps Base Quantico. Yeah, [inaudible 00:14:22], and then Holloman Air Base. And lastly, we are working across the federal government with help from our federal, state, private nonprofit, local NGOs, local governments, to ensure that after the Afghan nationals have left our care, they are properly integrated into the community across the United States with the compassion and support that’s needed. Thank you.

Speaker 1: (14:54)
We have time for a few questions. Anna?

Anna: (15:00)
Thank you very much. Secretary Mayorkas, Anna from the PBS NewsHour. I wonder, out of 127,000 who have been evacuated from Kabul, can you give us a bigger picture of where everyone is? How many people in those lily pad transit centers, how many people have been processed and arrived in the United States, and a general sense of timeline? I know you said you want to move quickly and safely. How long do people spend in the lily pads? How long do they spend on the bases?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (15:26)
Our goal, Anna, is to move people from the transit countries to the United States as swiftly and safely as possible, so we are interested in the swiftness of the effort, but one thing has to be underscored, which is the safety aspect of it. We are committed to protecting homeland security, the safety and security of the American people, and that is why we are so focused on the vetting and screening process, not only here in the United States, but the architecture and the system that we have built in those transit countries. There are a number of transit countries, Germany, Qatar-

Alejandro Mayorkas: (16:03)
There are a number of transit countries, Germany, Qatar, Kuwait, Spain, and others. This is an international effort to assist the evacuation of vulnerable Afghan nationals. Here in the United States, we have admitted just over 40,000 individuals. That includes US citizens, lawful permanent residents, special immigrant visa holders, and other vulnerable African nationals, such as journalists and vulnerable women and girls.

Speaker 2: (16:33)
[inaudible 00:16:33] how many people in the transit centers? Do you have an anticipation of how many you’re preparing for?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (16:37)
So that is a very fluid number because the commitment to evacuate individuals from Afghanistan is an ongoing one.

Speaker 3: (16:46)

Raphael: (16:46)
Well, two quick questions. One, can you give us a better description of conditions in Dulles and Philadelphia airports, how people are being processed there?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (16:58)
So yes, I’m sorry. No, no, please.

Raphael: (17:00)
And USCIS is already stretched pretty thin. What’s the opportunity cost of sending USCIS people to help with the Afghans?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (17:11)
So our resources are indeed stressed, but what we already have been able to accomplish in our operation, allies welcome, and what we will accomplish in achieving this effort speaks to the extraordinary talent and dedication of the workforce. Not only in US citizenship and immigration services, but in US customs and border protection, and the other agencies that are dedicating their energies and loyalty to this effort. So we have set up an entire process at both Dulles Airport and Philadelphia Airport to receive individuals who were evacuated from Afghanistan. And this is an all of government effort. And in fact, a public private partnership. We are working with international organizations and nonprofit groups to facilitate the admission of individuals to the United States, so that they have medical care, they have language access, we address their various needs.

Speaker 3: (18:18)

Ben: (18:18)
Hi. You mentioned it was unprecedented effort. And I’m wondering if you could sort of discuss what makes it an unprecedented, and whether the US contemplates admitting more non-citizens than it did, for example, after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. SO the ultimate number, I guess now you said there’s 40,000 people have arrived. A lot of them are US citizens. So how many new sort of non US citizens or non-members that you’ve admitted?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (18:46)
I think the leaders in this administration under the leadership of President Biden have spoken of this very powerfully, that our mission is not accomplished until we have safely evacuated all US citizens who wish to leave Afghanistan, all lawful permanent residents, all individuals who have assisted the United States in Afghanistan. This effort will not end until we have achieved that goal. It is unprecedented and historic because of its sheer scale. We have evacuated more than 120,000 people, and it is unprecedented and historic in that we have achieved that extraordinary feat in such a short period of time.

Speaker 3: (19:37)
Secretary, we have a question that came in via email on the live stream from the Washington Post. What is the default process for Afghan evacuees who are currently at transit sites, lily pads, and have no derogatory information, but no record of working for the USG or Western governments? Will they be cleared for travel to the US and parole that in as vulnerable Afghans or do evacuees have to have a record of working for USG or Western government or agency, et cetera?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (20:06)
So let me, if I can’t explain the process. So we have evacuated and we will admit to the United States individuals other than US citizens, lawful permanent residents, and special immigrant visa holders. For example, we will admit into the United States after the screening and vetting is completed and we’re assured there is no derogatory information that creates a risk to the American public. We will admit individuals who are in the application process for their special immigrant visas, but have not yet received those visas. We will admit individuals who worked for our embassy in the United States. We will admit vulnerable Afghan women and girls, journalists and other constituencies that need our relief. And we are very proud to deliver it.

Speaker 3: (21:13)
Luke [inaudible 00:21:14].

Luke: (21:15)
Hi, Mr. Secretary. We’ve heard about some unaccompanied minors being in the US. Can you confirm how many there are, where they are, and how you plan to reunite them with any member of family?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (21:29)
So we have in fact admitted a few thus far, a small number of unaccompanied children. We do expect others of course to be evacuated, to be admitted into the United States. And we are working with, of course, the Department of Health and Human Services in that effort. And when we admit them into the United States, we place them into the care and shelter of HHS.

Luke: (21:59)
Can you give us a specific number, or is it just-

Alejandro Mayorkas: (22:01)
I think as I’ve mentioned before, our commitment is an enduring one and we will provide humanitarian relief to those children.

Speaker 3: (22:12)

Eva: (22:13)
Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Can you talk a bit more about the use of parole for Afghan nationals arriving here? Approximately what percentage of the people arriving do you think have been given parole and would you like to see legislation going forward to help those people convert to a more permanent immigration?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (22:27)
So the authority to grant humanitarian parole is a discretionary one that rests with the Department of Homeland Security and other partners across the federal government. We are employing that tool for individuals whom we seek to admit to the United States and to whom we intend to provide relief, but who do not have another immigration benefit that enables them to come into this United States. I can take a look and see if I have a percentage. I would say thus far, and please, it’s an ongoing effort. Approximately 40,000 people we’ve admitted to the United States, approximately 13% have been US citizens, approximately 8% have been lawful permanent residents, and approximately 79% have been special immigrant visa holders, special immigrant visa applicants, other vulnerable Afghan nationals.

Speaker 3: (23:38)
Go ahead.

Eva: (23:39)
My colleagues intially reported that Lisa Rice and [inaudible 00:23:42] McMaster has been urging the US government to evacuate vulnerable orphans who are in Afghanistan still. Could you provide any information on how we’re planning to try to help them, and whether there are any numbers of evacuated orphans already?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (23:58)
I cannot speak to the fact whether some of the unaccompanied children that we-

Alejandro Mayorkas: (24:01)
… whether some of the unaccompanied children that we already have admitted or that are in the process of traveling to the United States are orphans, I don’t have that information ahead, but this is who we are as a country and this is also who we can be. Who we can be is not only a matter of character, but it is also a matter of skill. The fact that we can operationalize a rescue effort so rapidly. We are committed to providing relief to individuals in need and we do not stand alone. We stand with our allies across the world.

Speaker 4: (24:44)
Thank you. On the vetting process, have any of the evacuees that were flown out by the US been flagged on any chair watch list in the intelligence community and terror watch list?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (24:56)
We have a robust screening and vetting process and one thing that is remarkable is not only are we utilizing the architecture of the system that we have here in the United States, but we actually have built a system, so another layer in the transit third countries to achieve a multi-layered process. If and when we obtain derogatory information, we know how to address that. Those muscles are very well exercised. In fact, we have and we deny access to individuals whose derogatory information is not resolved and we do not feel confident in the safety and security of the American people.

Speaker 4: (25:43)
That is happening. What happens to those people? Do they stay in that third country? Where would they go?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (25:49)
We are working with our international allies to address the disposition of those individuals.

Speaker 5: (25:55)
Thanks so much secretary. Some of the groups that place refugees are estimating or have been told to expect about 50 million refugees. Is that a number-

Alejandro Mayorkas: (26:05)
That number is incorrect. 50 million, 50,000.

Speaker 5: (26:11)
Pardon me. Is that a number you can confirm? Second of all, when the Obama administration worked to bring in Syrian refugees, there was a lot of pushback from various states and locales. What can the Biden administration do differently to mitigate that pushback?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (26:33)
As I’ve mentioned, we estimate that just over 40,000 individuals had been admitted to the United States, that includes US citizens and lawful permanent residents. As I’ve mentioned before, we expect more than 50,000 in total to be admitted to the United States. The number is something I don’t want to estimate because as I’ve mentioned before, our commitment is an enduring one. This is not just a matter of the next several weeks. We will not rest until we have accomplished the ultimate goal of operation Allies Welcome.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (27:07)
We are working very closely with state and local officials around the country. The team and I have spoken with a number of governors and local officials already. In fact, I have a call with others later today. This is a partnership and we are approaching it and executing it in that way and we are seeing an outpouring of support from American people from coast to coast. We have been extraordinarily encouraged by the number of Americans that have donated and have expressed an interest in donating services and products to support the Afghan nationals that we are resettling throughout this country.

Speaker 6: (27:59)
I think we have time for one more. [Ellen 00:28:02]?

Ellen: (28:02)
You mentioned yesterday you were at Dulles and Fort Lee. I can’t remember if you mentioned a third location. Did you meet directly with some Afghan nationals and can you tell us about that?

Alejandro Mayorkas: (28:11)
I was at Dulles, the airport. I was at Dulles Expo Center and I was at Fort Lee. The Expo Center is not a part of the airport. I certainly saw the operations firsthand from beginning to end, spent the entire day at those three facilities. I saw the families, the individuals, whom we have admitted to the United States and whom we will resettle in this country. I did not interact one-on-one with them. I am very mindful of the fact that these individuals are quite vulnerable. Many, if not most, have endured extraordinary trauma very recently and I was respectful of that.

Alejandro Mayorkas: (29:00)
I do want to end with one comment because your question is a very important one and I just want to comment on what, again, this operation means, this operation Allies Welcome. This speaks of our history and our reputation in the world, historically, as a place of refuge for those in need. At Fort Lee, I spoke with many leaders and soldiers on the base about this operation and their contributions to it, upon which we rely. Each and every member of the military expressed how great they felt in being a part of this, that it was and is one of the greatest honors of their lifetime. It is that, that is the greatest takeaway of this. The honor of being a part of operation Allies Welcome, of re-establishing our leadership in the world as a place of refuge. We can do this and we can protect the American public and we can pronounce through our actions, the nobility and generosity of the American public. Thanks so much.

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